From Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman. To read my review of “People Like Us,” click here.
‘Star Trek’ star, co-writer explore personal story with ‘People Like Us’
Screenwriter Alex Kurtzman makes his directorial debut with the family drama, which was inspired and loosely based on his own life and stars new Captain Kirk actor Chris Pine.
In between their sweeping cinematic jaunts into “space, the final frontier,” filmmaker Alex Kurtzman and actor Chris Pine are exploring an intimate, deeply personal story of “People Like Us.”
About eight years ago, Kurtzman — who with his writing partner Roberto Orci has penned screenplays to action-packed blockbusters like “Mission: Impossible III,” the first two “Transformers” movies and J.J. Abrams’ 2009 “Star Trek” reboot — encountered a woman at a party who introduced herself as the half-sister he’d never met. The experience helped inspire the fictionalized “People Like Us,” which also marks Kurtzman’s directorial debut.
“In the movies I usually write with my writing partner Bob, we always look for a way to find a personal angle to tell any of the stories that we do. But given the scope of a lot of those movies, there are certain limitations. What excited me about this was the idea of getting to do a movie where you couldn’t cut away to a robot or a spaceship, where the scenes between the characters had to be as alive as anything. And I loved that challenge,” said Kurtzman, talking about the new film with Pine by phone from Dallas.
“I did meet my half-sister when I turned 30, so I was drawing from a lot of personal experience for it. And the whole thing was extremely cathartic and a lot of fun and just a great experience all around.”
Building on his cinematic breakthrough portraying Captain James T. Kirk in “Star Trek,” Pine plays Sam, a fast-talking, self-absorbed salesman whose recently deceased father tasks him with delivering $150,000 to spirited, strong-willed single mom Frankie (Elizabeth Banks) and her clever, troublemaking son Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario), who turn out to be the half-sister and nephew Sam didn’t even know he had. Deep in debt and with his shady job in jeopardy, Sam is reluctant to turn over the cash his estranged father has willed to this secret family, so he conceals his identity and sets out to get to know Frankie and Josh.
“He’s a complete BS artist in the beginning of the film and for much of the film, and he does a great job — or at least he thinks he’s doing a great job — of spinning all the plates at once until things start to unravel,” Pine said of Sam.
“Anytime you take on a character … you just have to find the parts of the character that you can understand. I mean, no matter how bad the individual, everybody has reasons for why they do what they do. Sam unfortunately at 30 is a really emotionally disconnected man who spends the length of the film trying to become a better person. I think that the lie he engages in through the length of the film is really born out of his fear that he will lose this very blatant emotional connection to this human being he is falling in love with, not as a romantic thing but he’s finally after all this time allowing himself to connect emotionally to someone else.”
Although he and Kurtzman conversed briefly during the making of “Star Trek,” Pine, 31, said they bonded much more intensely with “People Like Us.”
“He called me on a Thursday and asked me to read the script. On a Friday, I got it. I read it on a Saturday, Sunday I called my agent, and by Monday it was basically a done deal. It was something I responded to immediately, and it was a beautifully written story and a much smaller story in terms of scope and the slice-of-life quality that it had than I’d done before. And that interested me greatly,” Pine said.
“The fact that it was personal to Alex was definitely interesting, but it didn’t increase the appeal for me. I think when that really came into effect was when we started rehearsing the script and the movie. Alex, thank God, gave us two and a half weeks before (filming when) we began to talk about the script. Clearly, he was going to try to bring this thing to life and you couldn’t help but want to give it your all and do your best.”
“I felt very strongly that rehearsal was really necessary because given the nature of the material and the fact that you watched extreme complicated relationships progress,” Kurtzman added.
Kurtzman, 38, said his closeness to the material made it ideal for his directorial debut. He and co-writers Orci and Jody Lambert all contributed pieces of personal stories to “People Like Us.” From the time he was young, Kurtzman knew his father had been married previously and had two other children, although the filmmaker didn’t meet them until he was an adult. Orci brought to the film his aunt’s story about discovering her father had a secret family she had known nothing about. Lambert added her experiences growing up around show business as the daughter of record producer Dennis Lambert; in the film, Sam’s father is a producer, too.
“It certainly helped in the sense that I felt like I was able to speak from a place of authenticity about the material itself. You know, it took me and Bob and … Jody Lambert eight years to write the script. So by the time we were actually on set doing it, we’d thought about those scenes backwards and forwards in a hundred different ways,” he said.
“But the gift for me was being surrounded by such a talented cast and a talented crew, and everybody was there because they wanted to be there and they were working for almost nothing. I think that it sort of made us a family trudging forward together in a really kind of arm-linked way.” which was part of what was so great about it.”
Next May, film fans will get to embark on another space adventure with Pine and Kurtzman, who reunited with Abrams’ for the as-yet-untitled “Star Trek” sequel, now in post-production.
“What was really kind of fun for all of us on the first movie is that we basically got to show the bridge crew coming together. And I think that the mistake that we didn’t want to make in the sequel was assuming that just because they’re together they’re the finely tuned machine that you fell in love (with) from the original series. They still have a lot of work and a lot of growing to get to that place,” Kurtzman said.
“So it’s a lot of fun I think to watch the characters struggle through a lot of insanely huge challenges. I can certainly speak to the scope of the movie — and as big as the first one was, the second one’s even bigger. And the key for all of us was making sure we were holding on to character the whole time, but I think it’s gonna be a lot of fun.”
“I think the film takes people on a journey from Point A to Point B, and Kirk is still on his way to Z, let’s say. He’s still on his way to becoming the captain that we all know him to be,” Pine added.
“So you’ll probably find pieces of that rebellious Kirk in the new installment, but I think really what Kirk’s personal adventure is about is learning how to be a captain, learning what it means to be a leader of men and women, learning what it means to be a true, responsible kind of fully realized man in a position of incredible responsibility.
“I think the (special) effects and explosions are just as great if not greater in this new installment, but I think it’s matched by really strong and really interesting character development.”